CHATHAM – Twelve years ago this week, the historic Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse was lifted off the pilings on which it had sat for more than 70 years, gently placed on a barge and floated to a Quincy shipyard.
And there it remained for years, until 2019, when it was moved to Hull in an ill-fated attempt to use it as a Coast Guard museum. After a near-brush with demolition, it was once again moved to Quincy earlier this year, where it sits awaiting a return to Chatham.
With the timing of the boathouse's return uncertain, members of the community preservation committee are reluctant to endorse a $250,000 request for funds to pay for the move.
“Are we rushing it at this point?” committee member Ira Seldin said, noting that a new location for the boathouse has not yet been chosen.
The select board voted last month to accept the donation of the boathouse but did not specify what it will be used for or where it will be located. David Doherty, who is spearheading the project to bring the boathouse back to town through a group called the Stage Harbor Boathouse Preservation, Inc. said even though a location has yet to be chosen, “What we do know is that it has to be barged here. Whether it's at Bridge Street or Harding's Beach, it will need to come here.”
While Doherty is seeking private donations as well, the community preservation money is being sought to guarantee that once a location is identified, the boathouse can be brought back to town.
If the money is approved this year, it can be carried over to the following year if it is not spent, said Finance Director Alix Heilala. The request would require town meeting approval.
Built on the shores of Stage Harbor in 1937, the boathouse's claim to fame is its connection to the CG36500 motor lifeboat, which was used by Bernie Webber and his crew to rescue 32 men from the stern of the Pendleton on Feb. 18, 1952. The operation is considered the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history and was the subject of the Disney film “The Finest Hours.” Twice the town declined to accept the boathouse – which was attached to a 300-foot pier – once in the 1970s after it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard and again in 2009 when a single-family home was going to be built on the property. Instead, Doherty and several other residents worked with part-time Chatham resident Jay Cashman to move the structure to Cashman's Quincy shipyard.
Interest has been focused on using the boathouse to house a new shellfish upwelling system. The long-gestating plan to build a new structure, complete with an expanded dock, at 90 Bridge St. is at the 35 percent design stage, said Director of Nature Resources Robert Duncanson. The boathouse is about the same size as a newly built upwelling facility would be, but would cost about $760,000 more due to renovation and restoration requirements. Construction – either of a new building or using the boathouse – is likely three years away, Duncanson told members of the community preservation committee at their March 8 meeting. Because the project involves a new bulkhead and piles in the water to support the building, permitting alone is likely to take a year.
“We hope it takes less than that,” Duncanson said.
Given the timeframe, and a lack of details about the cost of restoration, committee members felt the request was premature.
“Without more details and direction, I would say we really have to back off,” said Art Spruch. Cashman will store the boathouse at no charge for six months, charging $2,500 a month thereafter.
Historic renovation is one of four categories under which CPA funds can be spent, but Chairman Michael Tompsett questioned whether CPA funds could be used to transport the boathouse. A former Coast Guard boathouse of the same vintage on Brant Point in Nantucket was converted into a shellfish upwelling facility at considerably greater cost, he said.
Transporting the boathouse to Chatham is a key part of its preservation, Doherty said.
With the date of the annual town meeting moved to June and the deadline for submitting articles now in late April, the committee has more time to gather information, Tompsett said. The group voted unanimously to postpone a vote until more information is available and the select board decides on a location for the boathouse.